JISC conference introduction: Sir Ron Cooke

I’d like to open today’s conference by welcoming delegates, including sponsors OCLC, visiting international delegates, the opening keynote speaker Lord Puttnam, and closing speaker Angela Beesley.

This is my final conference before my retirement – again – and I’d like to speculate on what the future holds. The theme of the conference this year is Enabling Innovation, but before you enable it, you must spot trends and deliver strategy.

The staggering features of the electronic revolution have been the rate of change and the eternal problem keeping up.

These features are constant bedfellows with JISC, and over the last few years there has been a formal attempt to deal with the problem, including three strategies in six years, and getting to grips with cost-effectiveness.

JISC have been supported by the funding councils, and I’d like to praise the executive and the committees who work to make progress possible – “progress depends on the participation of so many people.” So what are the challenges of the future?

My personal views are that political imperatives will change. How will we continue to serve the UK as one? It will become increasingly different. I am concerned about how long top-slicing will be sustainable for, and that there has been relatively little progress towards achieving national ambitions in Science and Innovation. The recent White Paper on Innovation Nation provides challenges for JISC in knowledge transfer and wealth creation. It emphasises the role of public procurement and services in shaping the market for innovation, and JISC have a major role to play in this highly technical area.

The only thing that’s certain is that there’ll be technological change. JISC are looking towards large shared computer facilities, and portability will be much more important as desktop, laptop, TV and telecoms converge and change the way we work and store data. At the same time, the issue of ICT sustainability and green computing will rise up the agenda, as energy efficiency rises up the agenda. ICT now accounts for 2% of global carbon emissions, so JISC have pilot studies in place evaluating sustainability. It is possible that a university could reduce its electricity bill by £250,000 per year, and the software that’s being developed could save all institutions a pro rate sum.

The greatest challenge is the national e-infrastructure. Around the body of knowledge, there are issues of search and navigation, preservation and curation, and data and information creation – all sectors in which JISC operate. Digital storage is a hugely complicated area, and my nightmare is the “challenge of super-abundant data” – not just its life cycle, but its superfluity with the new, unprecedented increases of data through Web 2.0 and user-generated content, including academic publishing in real time, blogging without control, and the quality and reliability of data. I am also concerned about the demands of skills it places on us – critical assessment is needed to deal with this data. Search engines and meta data will be at a premium, and will require us to position our repository strategies, meaning we will have to come to terms with the question of open access learning materials.

The effort to create a Strategic Content Alliance means working with major content producers – including the NHS and the BBC – nationally to deal with the management of data. Data will be cheap, probably free. The real problem lies in how we use them, which has always been the case. Skills, knowledge and wisdom will be vital, and this is the real challenge for the education community – for students and academics.

Everything we in education do is focused on users, and for JISC, they are students and staff. There is a general assumption that students are increasingly computer literate, but a recent UCL study shows that students only use basic tools, and most students lack the critical and analytical skills. With the power of browsing, most students are impatient in search navigation and intolerant of delay, and they move on at a superficial level. Those who teach and research also have a lot to learn. Most of us hope that ICT will release staff time and save money, but doubt it actually happens. One of the keys to this failure is that individual academics don’t have the means or the time to overcome their particular ICT obstacles.

We need to look beyond excellent infrastructure and services nationally. We can no longer work effectively solely in the UK. The EU, with Malcolm Read, has recently provided a blueprint for European ICT structure, seeing it as crucial to innovation and to good research.

Some of the ways in which JISC are dealing with the constant changes are on display over the course of the day – including Libraries of the Future and the online coverage. Check back here for regular updates.

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